Covering nearly 30% land surface of the earth, forests around the globe provide a wide variety of ecosystem services and support countless and diverse species. They also stabilise the climate, sequester carbon and regulate the water regime. The State of the World’s Forests report 2020, says that since 1990, around 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through deforestation, conversion and land degradation. Nearly 178 million hectares have decreased globally due to deforestation (1990-2020). India lost 4.69 MHA of its forests for various land uses between 1951 to 1995.
Despite various international conventions and national policies in place to improve green cover, there is a decline in global forest cover. This is the prime reason for forest restoration activities including tree planting to become increasingly popular and declaring 2021-2030 as the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration for improving environmental conditions and enhancing human communities.
Restoration in laymen’s terms is bringing back the degraded or deforested landscape to its original state by various interventions to enable them to deliver all the benefits. Building and maintaining activities help to improve ecological functions, productivity and create resilient forests with multifarious capabilities. India’s varied edaphic, climatic and topographic conditions are spread over 10 bio-geographical regions and four biodiversity hotspots, sheltering 8% of the world’s known flora and fauna.
However, dependence on forests by nearly 18% of the global human population has put immense pressure on ecosystems; in India, this has resulted in the degradation of 41% of its forests. To combat this, India joined the Bonn Challenge with a pledge to restore 21 MHA of degraded and deforested land which was later revised to 26 MHA to be restored by 2030. The first-ever country progress report under the Bonn Challenge submitted by India by bringing 9.8 million hectares since 2011 under restoration is an achievement. However, continued degradation and deforestation need to be tackled effectively to achieve the remaining target of restoration by addressing various challenges.
Local ecology with a research base: forest restoration and tree planting are leading strategies to fight global warming by way of carbon sequestration. However, planting without considering the local ecology can result in more damage. Similarly, planting a forest in the wrong places such as savannah grasslands could be disastrous for local biodiversity. Luckily recent research has shown that naturally regenerated forests tend to have more secure carbon storage. Being less tech-sensitive, cost-effective and conserving more biodiversity, natural forest restoration is becoming more widely accepted. However, it is fundamental to consider the local ecology before implementing any restoration efforts to retain their biodiversity and ecosystem functions.
Restoration, being a scientific activity, needs research support for its success. Whether one goes for active restoration which includes planting or passive restoration with more focus on halting environmental stressors or adopting an intermediate approach of aided natural regeneration, it needs critical examination before putting restoration interventions into practice.
Situation in India
Nearly 5.03% of Indian forests are under protection area (PA) management needing specific restoration strategies. The remaining areas witness a range of disturbances including grazing, encroachment, fire, and climate change impacts that need area-specific considerations. Further, much of the research done so far on restoration is not fully compatible with India’s diverse ecological habitats hence warranting due consideration of local factors. So, the relevance of local research duly considering ecological aspects, local disturbances and forest-dependent communities is vital to formulate guidelines for locally suitable interventions and to meet India’s global commitment.
Though India’s increasing economic growth is helping to eliminate poverty, there is continued degradation and a growing scarcity of natural resources. The intricate link between poverty and environmental degradation was first highlighted by India at the first UN global conference on the human environment in Stockholm. Out of its 21.9% population living under the poverty line, nearly 275 million people including local tribals depend on the forest for subsistence.
Fundamental to the strategy
Further, encroachment of nearly 1.48 MHA of forest and grazing in nearly 75% of forest area is also linked to the livelihood of local communities. Linked with the degradation of forests, this dependency, along with various social-political and economic factors, complicates the issue manifold. The participation of local communities with finances for incentives and rewards is essential to redress this complex riddle.
There have been remarkable initiatives to involve local people in the protection and development of forests by forming joint forest management committees (JFMC). More than 1,18,213 JFMCs involving around 20 million people manage over 25 MHA of forest area.
However, a review of their functionality and performance is essential to make them more dynamic and effective to scale up their involvement.
Therefore, negotiations with a wide range of stakeholders including these committees for resolving conflicts and fulfilling restoration objectives are a must and a challenging feat to reach a suitable trade-off.
Adequate financing is one of the major concerns for the success of any interventions including restoration. The active approach of restoration which includes tree planting and the involvement of communities seeks incentives and rewards and make the whole affair quite cost-intensive. The contribution of corporates in restoration efforts so far has been limited to 2% of the total achievement. Hence, alternate ways of financing such as involving corporates and dovetailing restoration activities with ongoing land-based programmes of various departments can help to make it easy for operation.
Apart from these specific challenges, the common barriers to restoration as identified globally also need critical review before placing the required methodologies and area-specific strategies in place. The involvement of multiple stakeholders in forest restoration is bound to cause a conflict of interests among different stakeholders; along with low priority and insufficient funding, it becomes even more challenging.
Active engagement of stakeholders including non-governmental organisations, awareness and capacity building of stakeholders with enabling policy interventions and finance can help a lot to achieve the remaining 16 MHA restoration objectives for India. The need of the hour is an inclusive approach encompassing these concerns with the required wherewithal.
Mohan Chandra Pargaien is a senior IFS officer in Hyderabad, Telangana. The views expressed are personal